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Sean Michaels on writing about the life of inventor and spy Lev Termen

Sean Michaels (photo: John Londono)

In the dark one night I heard a perfect voice. I think it was early winter. I was driving along the edge of Dow’s Lake, in Ottawa, on a road of slopes and curves, and I remember the way my straight shining headlights drew across faint shapes in brown and midnight blue. I was holding on tightly to the wheel.

Here, my memory flickers. Maybe it wasn’t winter; maybe it was summer. Maybe the colours were green and pale gold. But I was on the road, by Dow’s Lake, and then I heard a voice.

She was singing: a fine, fragile singing, impossibly high. I had turned on the radio and there must have been something before, some arrangement of piano or violin, but I wasn’t paying attention until suddenly this aria came out of the dark as I drove, and lifted into the air.

I was transfixed. It was one of those moments when music feels like a transmission from another world. The soprano’s voice was trilling and free. It was like melting ice. Her fragility was girded by a voltaic strength “ you could hear it in every phrase. A threat of volume, of lightning-bolt shriek. Who was this singer? Where did she come from?

At the end of the piece, the CBC announcer explained that we had been listening to a performance by the Magog, Quebec, musician Peter Pringle, who was playing the theremin. The theremin! Not a singer: an electric box, with wires and modulators, played by moving your hands near two antennas. A kooky sci-fi invention from the 1920s, the stuff of B-movie scores and Led Zeppelin concerts, the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, a toy for esoteric art-punks.

I was bewildered. I had heard the theremin before, on soundtracks, at Wolf Parade concerts in Montreal, but it had never sounded like this. The theremin was a thin and reedy novelty, not a vulnerable, otherworldly wonder. As I headed home, that high song stayed in my head.

It would be years before I started writing a novel about the theremin. It wasn’t enough to have heard Pringle’s virtuosity; the later catalyst was when a friend introduced me to the incredible true story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the instrument’s inventor. Never mind the ghostly ether song “ Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity. There’s the tale of his love affair with Clara Rockmore, a young violinist who became the theremin’s most famous player.

Hearing the facts, and reading Albert Glinsky’s definitive scholarly account, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, my imagination began to send up flares.

For some writers, historical fiction is a petition to find the truth: the author illuminates the past as faithfully as she can, fabricating only what she cannot know. It’s detective work, brave and meticulous.

I’m a lousy detective. It’s embarrassing to talk about, especially as a journalist, but I’ve never felt the allure of accuracy. Factual stories and their authentic details seem no more true than the best kind of lies. I’d rather invent than report.

So it was a strange thing, researching Us Conductors. I never set out to tell the truth “ to exhume Termen’s spirit, deduce his motivations. My method was closer to augury: puzzling through the pieces this Russian inventor left behind, listening to electricity singing in the air, and dreaming a way it all might have been. This novel is as much the sum of my own relics and obsessions, of my own questions,¹ as it is a distillation of Termen’s patents and passport stamps. Storytelling is an act of interpretation.

From books and records, I found hundreds of starting points: starting points for places; starting points for passages; starting points for characters, like faces in silhouette. Termen’s dates and transits formed a skeleton for imaginary scenes; his conquests and catastrophes crystallized the plot. Instead of wondering how things really, truly were, I considered how they should be, in this telling, given everything I wanted to ask.

Then came the hard part.

This was supposed to be an essay about inspiration. Maybe sometimes a writer gets everything he needs from a piece of music on the radio, or a lone instant in a car. There are moments when I reflect back to that night by Dow’s lake, with its slopes and curves, and once again hear that voice reaching ghostly across the dark.

But usually I don’t remember the voice. My memory is soundless, I remember only the road, and my lights through the night, and something growing clearer.

1. (I had questions about human resilience and unrequited love, patriotism and self-deception, invention and inventions and the stories we tell ourselves. I had so many questions, which hung in the room like an electric field.)

Scotland-born, Ottawa-raised Sean Michaels has written for the Guardian and McSweeney’s, and founded Said the Gramophone, one of the earliest MP3 websites. In April, Random House Canada will publish Michaels’ first novel, Us Conductors, as part of its New Face of Fiction line.

From the March 2014 print edition of Q&Q.